This is the story of Half Sugar. In the summer of 2016 I found myself singing and playing guitar for the grand opening of a brewery called Half Sugar. In a previous post, I talked about the bizarre nature of this name. Fortunately, I was not the only act. I’ve been told I’ve got a good voice for folk singing. I take this to mean that as long people can’t hear me too well I sound alright.
Back to Half Sugar though. Before I played my gig I had a few pints, to take the edge off. I also got to meet the co-founders a long with a smattering of other people I don’t remember. Some were brewers from other places in China.
Before I continue I would like to make a statement about the strange nature of finding a craft brewery in Xining. This is something like discovering a world renown seafood restaurant in Colorado. Needless to say, I was shocked when I first got the invitation to come play for the opening.
The beer I drank that night, I later found out, wasn’t brewed on the premises but had been brought in from a few different and prominent breweries in China. Nbeer is one I remember. It was all quality.
Somewhere in between glasses and singing I was approached by the majority owner. He was a middle-aged smallish man with a receding hairline. His demeanor was decidedly quiet and humble. He had heard that I knew something about brewing and invited me to join them for a brewday sometime. I was quick to accept his offer.
My homebrewing experience may have been the reason I was invited in the first place. Or it could have been that my western face was “needed” to attract future clientèle and show everyone there that the brewery was indeed cool. At that point I’d been in China about a year. I’ve found it’s not uncommon to experience things like this. There is something lucky about having foreign faces at a restaurant. I say that tongue-in-cheek.
The First Brewday and Beyond
A month passed and I finally got reconnected with Huo Huo, the main owner at the brewery. I met them at the brewpub to help with and observe my first professional brewday. Things didn’t go well that day.
We mashed in and were about to spin a tank when things went awry. In order to sanitize their fermentors, we would dose water in the boil kettle with concentrated sanitizer and pump it over to the tank. The day thus far was a little bewildering to me. There were a lot more valves, pipes, and switches than I was used to using.
Huo Huo had a tendency to rush. In the commotion, the valve to the sparge arm in the mash tun got left open and we ended up dumping sanitizer into the mash!
After that, all there was to do was clean out the tun and start again. I don’t remember how long that first day took, but it must have been a good 15 hours.
One of my reasons for helping out at the brewery was to practice my Chinese. This was aided by an ample supply of imported labels and of course beer on tap. I am still very grateful for the opportunity I had to brew at Half Sugar.
New years day rolled past and I found myself at the brewery two to three days a week. If we weren’t brewing we were building something. Sometimes I’d show up fully expecting to brew and we’d go for a hike instead or build a beer cart for some random event. Clearly, they weren’t struggling to keep up with demand. The brewery wasn’t big either. Batch size was 250 liters.
Business was in fact, not good. The location, while sexy and well designed, was hidden and had no opportunity to be found except by word of mouth. Nevertheless, customers found their way in and the doors stayed open for a while.
Aside from learning a ton about brewing, I had quickly become “brewmaster”. I also got introduced to some lessons in business. The first lesson: don’t expect your business to be a success the moment you open your doors and pour your first beer. Seems pretty obvious but a lot of folks still think they’re going to wake up rich right after they start a business.
I strongly opposed my title of “brewmaster”. I felt it was pretentious at best. My one year of brewing on my stove top at home wasn’t exactly a glowing resume. The other employees at the brewery knew who the real brewmaster was…Huo Huo. The title was just that, a title. It was a ploy to get people to think and repeat to others that the beer they drank was made my a foreigner.
I’d make the argument that in reality I knew more about brewing than Huo Huo. This isn’t really a brag. More than that, it was frustrating at times to know something about a process or why our beer had spoiled and not really be listened to. Cleaning and sanitation really are fundamental, surprising? An additional frustration was that my language skills were not good enough to stress the importance of things like cleaning before sanitation. It is also hard to teach or explain something to people that think they already know something. That being said, my Chinese was still growing alongside my brewing knowledge.
More often than not we were both left scratching our heads. My advantage ironically lay in language. The amount of resources on brewing available in the English language is astounding. The pass-it-forward mentality was a definite help in my learning process. This is NOT something I have observed in China. There seems to be more concern over “trade secrets” than helping fellow brewers make a quality product. As far as I can tell, most the trade secrets would be considered common brewing knowledge in the U.S.
The Breakup and What Followed
Sometime in February 2017 the co-founders had a falling out. I’ve never got the story straight on what exactly happened and honestly don’t really care. Huo Huo had caught his business partner doing something shady with money. Nothing dirty per-say but, you know, shady. Huo Huo physically attacked him and threw him out. The end result was that I never saw this partner again.
Up to that point I had hit it off better with his business partner. He had been abroad studying in Germany and had a good understanding of western culture. The whole falling out was a damn shame.
After the breakup I took on a greater role in brewing. At this point, I would have to agree with the title of brewmaster. But only in a limited sense. I also could consider myself a brewmaster in my kitchen. At any rate I started brewing more and had become an integral part of the brewery staff.
For the record I wasn’t getting paid for my help. My reimbursement came in liquid form, and more importantly, in many opportunities to practice Chinese. Huo Huo became a very patient teacher and had an integral role in developing my Chinese.
Fast forward to December 2017. I was on a trip visiting family in the states. I randomly received a message from Huo Huo saying that he had sold the brewery location and had closed up shop.
I was shocked. The brewery had become a staple in my weekly diet of activity. Not to mention the relationships I had with the employees. I’m definitively being melodramatic. However, it was a big transition to come back home to China and not have Half Sugar as part of my routine.
The reason for closing was actually really strange. Business had never been a rocket of success. But I’m pretty sure the brewery wasn’t a black hole for finances either.
Huo Huo had seen a fortune teller and had been informed that the location of the brewery wasn’t any good. She said that no one could do business there. Shortly after that he caught wind that there was a government plan to do some demolition and reconstruction where the brewery was. He made the smart move and got out while he could.
I stopped by the location the other day. It’s still there. Now it houses a bar but there is no craft beer.
Comments are welcome!